Charlotte Armstrong


Chapter One

The cracks in this ceiling are too familiar. There is one like the profile of Portugal up in the corner. It makes a king with a crown; his long scraggy nose has a wart on it. I am tired of seeing first Portugal, then a king, then Portugal again. But even I can’t read any more. I can’t listen to the radio, either, and be dragged by the ears the raggedy journey over that dial one more day. Makes me feel as if I were disintegrating; the strands of order and purpose in my brain seem to be raveling out to a fuzz like a tassel.

It’s a revelation to me that I can’t—let me record this while I am practicing—cannot stare at the ceiling and wonder and worry and brood about life and death. I am to wait? Well? Meantime, what am I to do? How shall I be occupied?

So they brought me a tape recorder, which I think is a fine appropriate tool for telling this story. All I need do is talk. Some clever girl can punctuate and place the paragraphs later, if it turns out that I’m not able.

Yes, my voice plays back crisply, as it should after all my studying and teaching, too. The girl will have no trouble. Will you, my dear, whoever you are?

Enough practice. I therefore (as Ben Jonson said) will begin.

This is a story you know already. But I’m convinced that it has been told the wrong way. The attack has always been the same. They’ve told you, first, the fantastic appearance of things; and piled up evidence of the marvelous. They have brought you up against what looked like proof of the impossible, until you were properly amazed. Then they say, “But of course it was nothing but a hoax and this is how it was done.” And all the storytellers run downhill. They must recapitulate. You cannot follow it. Or rather, you don’t.

I guess I know as much about it as anyone in the world, having been in the thick of it, and in a position to hear what all those concerned have had to say. You’ll remember me from the newspapers. Olivia Hudson: dramatic teacher in fashionable New York City Girls’ School. You’ll know my face: thinnish oval with nothing distinguished about it but high and too prominent cheekbones and one crooked eyebrow. Olivia Hudson, thirty-four. Place me? I’m going to tell the whole story into this machine, the other way around. The scene and the backstage machinery, all as it happened.

Oh, it’s called a hoax, now that it has been uncovered, but I’d rather call it a plot. A meticulously planned and almost flawlessly executed plot, with one strict purpose. It was all designed to damage one certain man.

It has damaged him. That’s why I think, if I tell it my way and you follow it, there may be some gain.

It was the old power of the Big Lie. Even now, when you don’t have to believe the lie anymore, it’s hard enough, isn’t it, to believe that anyone would have gone to so much trouble? Such a crazy business! Therein lies its wicked power. I hear people still saying, “Oh, I never believed that stuff but …” They are still talking. People drag out the same old saws. “More things in heaven and earth, Horatio.” Also, “… smoke, there’s fire.” And some say everything didn’t come out. “There must be more behind it than we know.” The lie was so weird and wild that it is hard to believe in the liars. So it all makes for argument … talk, talk, talk … as anything that smacks of the supernatural makes for talk and argument. (See flying saucers.) People delight in challenging reason with the marvelous, anyhow. It’s all the talk and the inevitable tinge of doubt that remains and still, I’m afraid, hurts him.

Of course, we didn’t know where the plot was going. We had no idea what it was designed for. It rolled up to such a size, before we knew it had to be exposed, that our difficulty was … and still is … to explain. Who these people were and not only how but why they did it.

Very well then. It was a plot. There were four people and (as far as I know) only four, in the plot. And one of these worked simply for her hire.

The plot was directed against John Paul Marcus and only him. The rest was buildup.

I have the good fortune to be related to John Paul Marcus. I call him Uncle John, although he is my grandmother’s brother-in-law, and the relationship is remote. He is seventy-seven years old now. He has never held political office but everyone knows he has served his country better and longer than most people alive. He is rich, having found it rather easy and not particularly important to make and keep money. He is influential, not because he is rich but because he is as alert today as when he was thirty and, by the sum of all the alert days of his long life, he is wise. This wonderful man has such balance and insight that he knows how to be steady in the dizzy dance of crises and confusions all around us. So he has been like a wise and beloved Uncle John to the entire United States of America. No use for me to go on about Marcus. You know how often men in responsible places have listened to him.

This is the man they wanted to pull down.

There were two men and two women in the plot. It was expensive. There had to be money, not so much in the execution of the plans—this was comparatively cheap—but to pay those who made and executed them. The man with the money had a motive. The man with the brains had a kind of motive, too. He was to get nearly a half a million dollars besides. The women—one with her kind of motive, and the other simply for her wages—cost, as usual, much less.

The man with the money was Raymond Pankerman. His grandfather made the money. His father used it productively and increased it fabulously, and in the endeavor lived to a healthy eighty-four. But Raymond just got it. He was a flabby creature—balding, with bad posture, with a pout to what was once a rosebud mouth. Fifty-two years old when all this began, married for the fifth time, no more successfully than the first. Childless, without occupation. He’d had a doting mother who had always thought he could pick up the business side soon enough. She didn’t think there was much to it. But when papa died, at last, the great complex of industries continued to be run by men who knew better than to let Raymond throw ignorant decisions into an intricate and delicate structure that grew and changed as flexibly, in a real and fluid world, as a living tree that bends to the wind and drinks the rain. And is as perishable.

So there he was. Shut out. With the income, to be sure, but understanding nothing about its sources. Raymond’s education, I can guess, was the most superficial gloss. He seemed to have nothing to do but spend money he never made.

He got to spending his money in a strange place.

Probably they flattered him. Probably there, he got what he thought was respect. Who knows? The money was useful to them for their purposes. Anyhow, Raymond Pankerman had bought himself a secret that sustained his tweed-scented ego when all busy men, and most women (especially his wives), found him dull and negligible.

But he had the primitive reactions of a spoiled baby. Rich and world-weary, with ringside tables and third-row seats wherever he went, fifty-two years old, who would imagine he would react like a four-year-old? “He spoiled my fun; I’ll spoil his.”

It seems that John Paul Marcus, one day, one spring, said softly in the appropriate ear that it might be wise to look into the possibility that Raymond Pankerman’s money was going into strange channels. This was something that rose to the top of Marcus’ mind because of nothing in the world but experience. The long boiling and testing of the ingredients of life were in the kettle. This suspicion rose up and became visible. He skimmed it off and offered it for what it was, a mere suspicion. And lo, when it was investigated it turned out to be the truth.

Raymond Pankerman was caught—shall I pun and say red-handed?

So the Law began to move toward the long cautious prosecution.

Now there are jackals and small men for hire who will scurry and poke about. So Raymond Pankerman knew (as the public, by the way, did not know) that he was in a bitter mess, he had been caught financing what amounted to a spy-ring, he was due to be dragged through the courts, he was suffering and would suffer more, he was in fact ruined, because John Paul Marcus had seen what was invisible, heard what was silent, sensed what was hidden. So, as Raymond was bound to see it (Raymond never having taken a long hard look at Raymond or anything else), Marcus, and Marcus alone, was to blame.

(I doubt whether Pankerman’s underground playmates even knew of the plot. It was certainly not devised by them. Its objective may have pleased them. But the methods would have seemed to them the sheerest nonsense. No, it was, as far as anyone knows, a strictly private plot. For revenge.)

All right. There had to be money and there was money because Raymond Pankerman had a lot of it. But there had to be brains, too. It was no easy matter to cook up a way to damage Marcus. And this is where Kent Shaw came in.

When they met the plot was engendered. You take a spoiled baby, too old to spank, with plenty of money, giving him power, and the reckless blind and angry wish to destroy that which has thwarted him and no wisdom and not much sense, either—bring him together with that other diabolical brain.…

Kent Shaw hasn’t been thought of as a brain for many a year but he was born an infant prodigy, just the same. He was one of those who got through Yale at something like fifteen. He always had a flamboyant quality that attracted attention. He burst into the theater and, as a playwright-director in his twenties, he did some very exciting things. But somewhere along the line, Kent Shaw lost the thread. Or perhaps he never really had hold of it. He grew progressively farther and farther away from any relation to ordinary life as it is lived, day in and out, by ordinary people. So he lost emotional connection with his audiences. They didn’t know what he was talking about. He ceased to excite them.

So he had a series of dreadful and even ludicrous failures. He grew desperate and denied his own convictions, and did cheap sensational things, contemptuously. And they failed. At last, he went abroad and shook the dust of crude America from his feet. But the war drove him back, 4F and miserable. He hung around New York. Sometimes his high-pitched voice snapped through radio bits. Sometimes he briefly caught onto the coattails of people flying into TV. He wrote a book that nobody bought. He wrote a second one that nobody printed. He developed a very nasty tongue. He lived in some cheap depressing den and wore shirts proudly darned to indicate both fastidiousness and poverty. He was down to earth, at last, and might have made use of his real talent, except that he, too, was a spoiled child. And bitter. He was a broken, bitter failure, at thirty-nine, and seemed to have survived himself by a hundred years.

But the brain, you see, was still in that head, the brilliant fantastical brain. Furthermore, Kent Shaw hated the whole world, and particularly, I suppose, America, which would no longer praise him or, worse, pay any attention to him at all. And he wanted money so that he could soar. He must have known that to pull John Paul Marcus down with a brilliant he was blackest treason, whatever the Law would say about it. But Kent Shaw didn’t care.

I will tell you how these two men met because for a long time it was a great mystery. No connection between them was apparent. Raymond Pankerman and Kent Shaw inhabited two different worlds. No witness was ever found, but the one, who had seen them together.

It happened in Mamaroneck on the nineteenth of August. In the midst of a heat wave. At four in the afternoon. Raymond had spent the morning sweating with his lawyers. He had spent his noon hour wrestling with the press. He had fled to the modest apartment of a nephew of his current wife. This was in Mamaroneck, near the water, and he thought he would be hidden and comparatively cool there. He had to be in the city the following day to hear more lawyers view his situation with deep alarm. But his flight had not been entirely successful since one young newsman in an excess of zeal had trailed along and was lurking outside the door.

Inside, however, Raymond was all alone.

The apartment adjoining belonged to some friends of Kent Shaw’s who were on vacation and who had soft-heartedly given him their key. He had fled the heat wave. He was alone. Kent was not an alcoholic. That particular illness wasn’t his. But he had a bottle of gin and some lemon and lime and the ice gave out.

Kent Shaw heard sounds next door. He opened the dumbwaiter and rapped on the door across the shaft with a broom handle. Raymond opened the door on his side. Kent asked for ice, recognized the heavy pink face that had been on front pages, introduced himself. Raymond had vaguely heard of him. I don’t know the exact sequence that led to the happy thought that neither should drink alone. But Kent Shaw, who was small, only five foot six, and all skin and bones, took it into his head to climb perilously through that dumbwaiter shaft. So they joined forces.

There they were in the little apartment, unseen by anyone, and they mixed some drinks and they talked.

Raymond denied, of course, everything that was just then coming out in the papers. He was a wronged man. Kent Shaw agreed soothingly but he was not fooled. I don’t know how soon Raymond spoke the magic sentence. But he did, saying, “I’d give a million dollars to pull that John Paul Marcus off his high perch.”

And Kent Shaw said with a glittering eye, “For a million dollars, I will do just that.” Startled, Raymond was cute enough to bargain. It ended up a half a million for the “package.”

I wish I had heard the dialogue. I can imagine Kent Shaw, who never could sit still, flashing up and down the room. I can see Raymond’s jowls quiver with the desire to believe that this strange feverishly excited little man could help him to his revenge.

But what could they do to John Paul Marcus? You look at a man’s life that is sweet and sound from the beginning, and to hurt him (unless you shoot or use a knife) you must lie. But what lie?

It was no good to try anything to do with women. Marcus was seventy-odd and it was ridiculous, and even if they could have successfully lied about women in his past, there would be no uproar. “Be a dud,” Kent Shaw said. “The powder’s damp. Who, in these Kinsey days, would get excited?”

It was no good to try anything to do with money either. Marcus had always had money. His business life was an open book. Besides, Kent Shaw knew as little as Raymond about business and money. They couldn’t lie convincingly. They didn’t know enough.

They thought of pretending that Marcus had committed a crime, a killing or a vicious assault. They had some nasty ideas. But any such scheme would require a good quota of witnesses, all of whom must lie, and they didn’t dare trust too many people. For of course, it was their dream that the plot would never be discovered. No, crime was not good. The law is too tough. You need proof.

Then Kent Shaw thought of the effective lie. Marcus must be involved, as Raymond was, in treason! This was the lie to tell. Easier, much easier. Doubt was enough. No one could prove a negative, not even Marcus. Suspicion and apppearances would be enough. Needn’t prove it in a court. Taint was enough. Because such a taint would strike at his whole function, at the root of his meaning. Who (if they succeeded) would listen to Marcus, ever again? That was the one cruel way to get revenge.

Kent Shaw must have paced and bounced and talked and in the excitement both of them forgot the pretty convention that Raymond Pankerman was an innocent man.

You can taint him by association,” Kent Shaw cried.

And, Raymond, who knew he was guilty, knew he was fallen, forgot to pretend he wasn’t and resolved, then and there, that he would not fall alone.

But how could this be arranged? No good for Raymond to get up in some courtroom and simply lie. He was tainted and a man like Marcus couldn’t be pulled down as simply as that. So there was the problem of evidence, some evidence. Forgery perhaps? Forgery isn’t easy, science being what it is today, and it involved the risk of a hired expert, too. Then a suspicious meeting? Overheard talk? No way for Raymond to get at Marcus. If they met in the park it would hardly seem suspicious or secret. Especially as there was certainly no way to tempt Marcus, himself, toward any foolishness. He wasn’t foolish and they couldn’t expect him to be. And he lived surrounded by devoted people, none of whom they would dare to try to bribe. Kent Shaw thought he might use that very loyalty against the old gentleman. (The public would think they’d lie for him, he pointed out.) “But it has to get out, to the public,” Kent Shaw said, putting his finger on the key of the plot. “It has to ring from the roof tops. Plenty of stuff ends up being filed in triplicate. And forgotten. This bomb has got to go off in the marketplace. At high noon. We have to get it around, call in the pressure, print it, talk it up. I know something about publicity, Mr. Pankerman.”

Then, the glitter. “There was an idea I had once.… It would have been a sensational publicity stunt. I never could see enough profit in it, never bothered to mention it. But I happen to know a pair of women.…” Kent Shaw began to see the shape of the fantastic lie.

Raymond Pankerman wasn’t impressed with the basic outline at first. He looked very sourly upon the supernatural element. Shied away. Felt he had been talking to a crackpot. But Kent Shaw, pacing, talking, gesturing, wild with excitement, gradually sold him. “The one thing that will make talk,” he said. “Of course, you are right. No sensible person is going to believe it. But he won’t be able to explain it, don’t you see? And there are plenty of people who will be awed and impressed and glad to believe because they wish such things could be. And they’ll argue with the other kind. And it can be rigged so that the evidence falls out of this other thing, as if it were casually.…

“It will work,” Kent Shaw said, swearing whitely by whatever gods he had. “It will take time, some money but more time, and it must be perfectly done without any stupid mistakes. But it will work.” Then he told Raymond what it was he, personally, must finally do and it clicked. Raymond saw the delicious irony. He tasted already the sweetness of his revenge.

They knew they would have time. Raymond was in for a long slow siege with the Law, months of it, before he would be entirely helpless. They roughed out the plot and discussed how the money was to be paid. They arranged another secret session together, there in November. There would be, after that, the putting up of the stakes. In the meantime, Kent Shaw was to develop all details, prepare the script, line up the cast (many of whose members would never know they had been in a play). Raymond gave him expense money. Kent crawled back the way he had come. They swore utter secrecy. Who knows what they swore on? Blood perhaps, like Huck and Tom.

What they wanted to do was from coldest vanity—narrow and bitter and mean. But money and brains will serve any master. You don’t think the deluded, emotional, immature can make an effect on the real and solid world of affairs, because you don’t remember King John or Benedict Arnold or Adolf Hitler.

When Kent Shaw left the apartment that evening, his head was full, I’ll warrant, of his masterpiece. He would pull off the biggest show he had ever staged and no one would ever know it. He could gloat in secret, meanwhile possessing the only tangible thing that a dirty, grubby, contemptible world really respects. The long green, the money.

Of course he had to line up the women. He could buy one. The other, he thought, would play. Kent Shaw had his outline and he could see much of the detail already. There were some contingencies he could not foresee. If he had, I wonder if it would have mattered.

Chapter Two

I realize that I have been cheating. Very well. I can’t resist telling the first incident from the outside. I can tell it as an eyewitness. I was there.

It happened on a Sunday afternoon, the sixth day of December. Charley Ives called me, about one o’clock.

“You going down to this gathering at Cora’s, cousin Ollie? In a cab, I hope?” I admitted I was. “Pick me up?”

“Oh, Charley.…”

“You’ll be going by. Why not, Teacher?”

“Because it’s so much simpler for you to go in your own cab and such a nuisance in traffic,” I sputtered. Charley often made me sputter. I had a deep long-seated impatience with him. I didn’t want to pick him up.

“I’ll be on the sidewalk,” said he coaxingly.

“So easy to miss you.…”

“Most unmissable fella in the world. Two o’clock sharp?”

“If you’re not on the sidewalk, Charley, my boy, I’ll just have to go on.”

“Aw, Teacher,” he said, “school’s out.”

I could see him grinning as if his picture had been projected on my dark-green wall.

I went on getting ready. (I don’t live at the school but by myself in an apartment nearer the river. I may as well say that I live well, and not on my salary. I’ve always had quite a lot of money.) This was going to be a ridiculous way to spend a bright December afternoon, watching Cora Steffani’s latest TV effort. But she’d asked her friends to come and view some filmed half hour or other.

My old friend, Cora (born Stevens) was in the plot.

I can realize, now, that I never did entirely trust her. I knew she didn’t mind lying, when she could see a profit in it. In fact, I suppose I knew she was pretty much a phony. But I was her friend. You don’t choose a friend for his high moral integrity. You really don’t. I’d known Cora so long. We’d gone to dramatic school together. We’d been young together and—if you keep in touch—that holds. Then, years ago, she’d been briefly married to my cousin, Charley Ives, and I suppose it made another bond.

I remember surveying, that afternoon, the split kind of life I was leading, since I’d been seeing so much of Cora lately. Days of earnest endeavor, doing the best I could with my girls and loving the work more than I ever admitted. (You grow shy; you don’t want to be too vulnerable; and the great sin, these days, is taking yourself seriously.) So, days of good hard work, and nights and weekends, running down to see Cora and certain other less than upright characters. Oh, I had fine friends in the theater, too, people whose endeavor was just as earnest and far more significant than mine. But Cora and the raffish crew that turned up around her.… Well, I had known her so long. And rascals are vivid, sometimes, and that’s attractive.

Cora and I are the same age, much the same size, both brunettes. I had a bit of gray showing. Cora’s black hair was blacker and glossier than ever. It was her livelihood to look as young as she could. My job would let me grow old.

We took different turns, long ago. I dropped away from Broadway. The fact is, I never really made it. Cora said I hadn’t the guts and she was right. I hadn’t the nerve or the skin for it. The sad thing is that, for all her courage, somehow she never really made it, either.

Cora Steffani. The name turned up once in a while but all the small parts she had played indifferently well didn’t add up to very much. But she still, at thirty-four, seemed to think that next year she’d make it. That I admired. As for Cora, I knew she thought I had feebly fallen back on an unearned income and was dabbling. But she had known me so long.…

In a way, we were each other’s habit. We had a curious pact of plain speaking. We didn’t have many secrets one from the other. The secrets we did keep, each to herself, were the deep ones.

Charley Ives was on the sidewalk. He got in and filled the cab, the way he does. Charley is a big man and he takes space, but why does he seem to take all of it?

“Hi, Teach.”

“Charley, my boy, how long have you been standing on the sidewalk?” I sputtered.

“Oh, twenty minutes.”

“You could have been there. It was silly to wait for me and five minutes’ ride.”

“With contraptions like those on your feet in the dead of winter,” said Charley morosely, “you’re going to talk sense?” I bristled. I was wearing black satin, without so much as a button’s worth of ornament on it, and it needed frivolous shoes. “Silly, she says,” brooded Charley. “Lay off, or we’ll fight, Cousin Ollie. I’m in no mood for this clambake, anyhow.”

“Why must you go?” I said.

“Ask me no sensible questions, I’ll tell you no silly lies,” said Charley idiotically.

Charley Ives was Marcus’ grandson, which made us more or less cousins. Long, long ago, in the days just before the Second War really broke upon us, Charley and I had a fight. I don’t like to remember it, but I do, clearly. I, stamping and howling that art and truth and beauty and understanding and being sensitive to people’s infinitive variations, all this was important, Hitler or no Hitler. Charley shouting that all that mattered—all—was to stand up with your kind and kill your enemy or be killed and dramatic art was for the birds. It was a very young and very stupid argument. Charley went to war and was gone a long time. When he came back, long after the peace, he wasn’t young any more. And neither was I.

He, too, was thirty-four that December day. He’d taken to calling me Teacher. It made me feel elderly and stiff and ridiculous. So I called him Charley, my boy, and God knows whether he minded.

He brought out the very worst in me. When I was with him I was the teacher. The stereotype, I mean. Something waspish and preachy. The truth was, he mystified and therefore irritated me.

After the wars, Charley had bought into a publishing house. (Everyone in our family seems to have money. Perhaps we bask in the golden glow around Marcus. I don’t know.) But it seemed to me that Charley (of all people!) was doing no work. The money did the work, for all that I could see, and Charley was window-dressing. He was so big and he looked relaxed and knew how to be charming and he turned up everywhere seeming to have no pressing duties on his mind.

(The young woman who had shouted Hooray for art and sentiment and dainty understanding, she had learned to keep quiet. She hid in a shell that was poised and calm and she never shouted anymore. But the young man who had been so willing to get killed … where was he?)

Charley stirred. “You going down to Washington for Marcus’ birthday next month? How about flying down together?”

“I can’t go until the last minute. Classes.”

“I can go anytime,” Charley said easily. “So it’s a date.”

I sat there thinking, Of course you can go anytime. Why don’t you have something that limits you?

“What are you going to give him for a birthday present?” Charley wanted to know.

“A book,” said I.

“He’s got a book. I send him crates full. I had an idea. Want you to help me pick it out.”

“Why me?” said I. Why fly down with me? I was really wondering. Why wasn’t he taking Cora? I knew he had taken Cora to see Marcus while they were married and that Marcus hadn’t cottoned to her. Marcus is ever gentle, but you are not left in doubt about his feelings. Now, I didn’t know whether she and Charley Ives were engaged again or what. I thought, grimly, it was probably “or what.” The fire and flame between them had died away abruptly, long ago. Yet Cora acted as if he belonged to her and Charley, amiably, let her do it. I knew Charley worshiped Marcus. For all I knew, he’d split with Cora because of Marcus. If now, at the age of thirty-four, Charley, my boy, was torn about marrying his ex-wife all over again against his grandfather’s advice, he didn’t confide in me. I was afraid he would. It was none of my business. I didn’t understand a thing about it. I didn’t want to know.

“I like your taste,” Charley said. “In fact, I defer to it.”

I’d lost the thread.

“Do you know you’re about as absentminded as a full professor?” Charley teased me. I didn’t answer or we’d have fought.

Cora’s apartment, on the fringe of the Village, had one really good room. It was full of people that day. Only two of them mattered. Kent Shaw, faintly bouncing with tension, as usual, was sitting in a corner. And Mildred Garrick was there. A large woman with a cherub face, a crown of braids on her head into which she had a habit of thrusting feathers or flowers according to her fancy. Today she had a fat maroon velvet rose over her left eyebrow. Mildred wrote a column. She looked surprised to find herself where she was. And, since she could—an’ she would—print one’s name, Mildred was Queen-for-a-day in that company.

“Olivia, beloved,” gushed she. “Do you know, the older you get, the more absolutely distinguished you become?”

“You’re just being kind,” I said as dryly as possible. “Do you know Charley Ives?”

“Of course. Of course. Of course.” Mildred pulled me aside. “What am I doing here?” she asked me with round eyes.

“Oh, come, Mildred, don’t be such a snob.”

I saw Cora put one arm around Charley’s neck, pull him down, and kiss him on the cheek. She then sent him to tend bar and he went, wearing her lipstick.

“When is this program?” demanded Mildred. “I have an appointment …”

Somebody said, “It’s just about two thirty now.”

Cora was wearing tight black-and-white checked pants and a black blouse. Her thick-rimmed glasses rode on her head like a tiara and the cord attached to the earpieces hung off the back of her neck. She was too busy to greet me. She knew she needn’t bother. She was swaggering back and forth, hands flying, gesturing people onto cushions. “Kent, darling,” she said in her affected way that by now was her only way, “is the little gadget hooked up? Kent’s going to take this off on a tape for me. For the voice. Isn’t he a sweet?”

I craned my neck and saw Kent fussing with a recorder. “I’m ready,” he snarled, “to make you more or less immortal.” Nobody bothered to resent Kent Shaw’s snarls anymore.

“Somebody tune in CBS, then. Now, kids, I don’t say this is high holy art.…” Cora’s eyes flashed mockery at me. She suddenly crossed her legs and sank swiftly to the floor. She pulled her glasses down to position, put her elbows on her knees, pushed fingertips into her cheeks, and was absolutely still.

The screen filled, music played, a title flashed on.

I was watching Cora’s face. She was not at all a beauty. The face was thin. She had a rather long straight nose with a most distinctive tip to it. The nostrils flared back; the very tip of the nose made a sharp little bony triangle. That nose was the most arresting feature, gave all the character to her face. The effect was inquisitive and a bit mischievous. I was thinking that no makeup could change it. I was thinking, also, that Cora had this much skill. You did not know what went on in the head. The face did not need to tell you.

Somebody said, “Hey, Cora, I thought.…”

“Oh, no!” she cried tragically and clutched her forehead. “This is the wrong film! I’m not on! Oh, no!”

So she rose. The slim legs were supple and strong. She got up from that cross-legged pose like a fourteen-year-old. “I’m so sorry!” she cried, desolately, and walked to the far end of the room and flung herself upon the window bench.

People exerted themselves to be good sports about the fiasco and a great hubbub arose, very loud and jolly. Even Mildred Garrick tried not to make her intention of getting away as fast as she could too obvious. Everyone let Cora alone, assuming she was upset and embarrassed. In the corner, the tape recorder ran, apparently forgotten.

It was Charley Ives who said quietly in my ear, “Is Cora all right, do you think?”

So I looked at her. She was lying on her back on the narrow bench, her head crooked on a cushion, one leg bent so that the foot was on the floor. Her glasses, hung around her neck by that thick cord, seemed to catch a little yellow light, although draperies had been drawn, to protect the TV screen, and where she lay it was dim.

“Can’t be asleep,” I murmured. I thought Charley hesitated to go himself to rouse her or comfort her or whatever. I thought he wanted me to do it. So, of course, I went.

She wasn’t asleep. But she couldn’t be roused. Now others noticed something odd. Somebody rolled up one of her eyelids. She had not fainted. She seemed limp. Her pulse was fast.

People said not to crowd, to let in some air. Someone drew the curtains open and she lay, just as limp, in full daylight. Somebody wanted to call a doctor. Somebody asked what time it was. Somebody answered.

Cora opened her eyes and sat up.

Charley said, “What ails you?”

“I don’t know. I went away.”


“I don’t know. I was walking on a beach,” Cora said in a perfectly matter-of-fact voice. “In my green summer cotton.”

“Dreaming? You couldn’t have been asleep.”

“Wait,” she said sharply. “Wait.…” It was as if she were catching a dream back that might fade. “Josephine Crain was there. I walked up to her. I said, ‘Josephine, please tell me where we are.’ She doesn’t know me. Then I remembered what I’ve read. I said, ‘You are in Florida. But where am I?’ Then I was frightened. I was terrified. I walked very fast, hard to do on the sand, in my white sandals with heels.…” Cora looked down at her feet in black heelless slippers, and I know I shivered. “What”—she began to rub her head—“what happened?”

“Must have had a dream,” said somebody soothingly. Somebody brought her a drink. Cora sat huddled together. I thought she looked all of thirty-four. “It was the strangest kind of dream,” she muttered. “I think I will crawl into bed, if you will all excuse me.”

“Do you feel ill?”

“I don’t know.”

Mildred Garrick said to me, “Now, what was all that?” She pranced out. People left, awkwardly and at a loss for an attitude. It was just awkward, just odd. Kent Shaw waited until nearly last. “I’ll leave the machine,” he said. “Don’t make a mistake and erase it.”

“Erase what?” said Cora. “What do you mean, Kent, darling?”

“The thing was running the whole time. You might want your analyst to hear it.”

“I don’t want to hear it at all. Take it away.”

Kent shrugged and took it away. Charley and I were left with her. He took her hands. “What happened, now … really?” Charley can be very sweet and gentle. Some big men can.

“Just what I said. I can’t tell you more than that.” She pulled her hands away. “I thought I was on a beach.”

I said, “So long, you two.”

But Cora said, “No. Charley, you go away. There’s a dear man. Let Ollie stay with me.” (We had known each other so long.)

So, Charley left and I stayed. Cora didn’t go to bed. We lounged, talking quietly, not about her dream or whatever it was, but gossiping a bit. Cora didn’t seem to bother to put on any act for me. I thought she had suffered some queer mind lapse and it had frightened her. I thought she was toughly assimilating whatever the sensation had been. I let her be. She finally said she felt all right. I knew she meant that I could go.

She had the grace to thank me, in a phrase that was pure Cora. “Your ivory tower has made you a nice peaceful type to have around,” said Cora.

“No questions asked,” I said lightly. “Have a snack and go to bed, why don’t you?”